T he Hungarian architect Marcel Breuer’s iconic museum opened its doors on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in 1966. A totemic granite structure that seems to lurch over Madison Avenue’s townhomes and brownstones, The Breuer Building is one of the most important and well-known works of Brutalist architecture, as well as a beloved destination within a historic district encompassing Museum Mile. Built to house The Whitney Museum of American Art’s collection, it’s since served as an outpost for The Metropolitan Museum of Art and currently the temporary site of The Frick Collection. Next, in September 2024, when The Frick completes the restoration of its East 70th Street mansion, custodianship of The Breuer Building will pass to Sotheby’s.
945 Madison Avenue will become the address of Sotheby’s new global headquarters, replacing its current home at 1334 York Avenue, a former cigar factory and Kodak warehouse it’s occupied since 1980. The move will place Sotheby’s less than two blocks from its first American offices at 980 Madison Avenue – then the epicenter of the US art market and still home to a number of prestigious galleries today – after it acquired the Parke-Bernet auction house in 1964.
“We often refer to the provenance of artwork, and in the case of The Breuer, there is no history richer than the museum which has housed the Whitney, Metropolitan and Frick collections,” says Chief Executive Officer Charles F. Stewart, noting his respect for the architectural landmark.
Breuer, one of the youngest students to study at the Bauhaus, opened his pitch for the building’s commission by asking what an art museum should look like in the radical 1960s. “It should transform the vitality of the street,” he proposed, “into the sincerity and profundity of art.” The Whitney’s trustees chose the younger and relatively untested Breuer over Philip Johnson, Louis Kahn, I. M. Pei and other more established designers in recognition of his compelling, avant-garde vision – and perhaps a sense of collegial competition with The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which had recently opened its “temple for the spirit” designed by Frank Lloyd Wright nearby.
Breuer, like Wright, was inspired by religious architecture. His museum resembles a Babylonian ziggurat – turned on its head in a modernist twist and a feat of cantilevered engineering. A bridged entrance, covered by a canopy, crosses a sunken garden to reach what he called “the dynamic jungle of our colorful city,” its threshold marking a transition to a spiritual and introspective realm. A compact entryway opens into a stunning stone lobby adorned with halos of light – lovingly restored by The Met when it began its lease of the building in 2016. The building elevates concrete – a ubiquitous material in the city, valorized by post-WWII architects for its monumentality, its heaviness, its permanence – and transforms it into a shrine to craft, material and human creativity.
Under Sotheby’s stewardship, the building will host state-of-the-art gallery spaces and exhibitions – which, as at its current location, will remain free and open to the public. The auction room in New York will also relocate to the five-story modernist structure. At the beginning of the tenancy, an architect will review the building with an eye to renewing and restoring its internal spaces and key elements – especially the striking lobby.
The Whitney Museum of American Art – now located downtown in a stunning waterfront museum designed by Renzo Piano – is happy to see the building pass to the auction house, a preeminent cultural institution with 279 years of history. “The iconic Breuer Building will always be a beloved part of the Whitney’s rich history,” says Director Adam Weinberg. “We are pleased that it will continue to serve an artistic and cultural purpose through the display of artworks and artifacts. Most importantly this architectural masterpiece – thanks to its status in a landmark district – will be preserved.”
The acquisition is the latest of several important realty expansions Sotheby’s is making. Later this year, the auction house will open Gantry Point, a 240,000-square-foot operational facility in Long Island City. And in 2024, it will inaugurate new flagship galleries in Hong Kong’s Landmark Chater House and Paris, located on the site of the Galerie Bernheim Jeune, one of the oldest art galleries in the city.